June 15, 2020
A Letter of Lament and Resolve
My heart is broken these days.
I grew up in a town where I felt safe, where no one attacked or challenged me because of the color of my skin, and where the police were the good guys. But by the time I went to college, and increasingly as each year has passed, I knew that my experience wasn’t shared by everyone.
I grew up in a town in Southern California where “Sundown Laws” were enforced, even if they weren’t written. Black people could work there, but they better not be caught outdoors after sundown. In 1964, the good people of my hometown voted more than 3 to 1 to repeal a recent state law which made it illegal to discriminate in real estate transactions according to the buyer’s race. That law wasn’t fully repealed until 1974. It took until 1979 for the first African-American student to graduate from my high school, the same high school that had graduated both of my parents and one of my grandparents.
As I watch and listen to the anguish of my black brothers and sisters as they tell of their experiences growing up in this country, I’m aware that I knew a lot of the details already. That right there is the experiential definition of privilege: it doesn’t directly affect me, so I don’t really have to think about it very much. It doesn’t have to invade my consciousness every single minute. I can leave it alone to think about happier things. I can even grouse about the intense reactions of the victims, because it disturbs my peace and my sense of order.
That’s over now. Today I pledge these things:
I will work to make sure the issue of racism moves to the center of my expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. White Christians have been silent for too long about the persistent marginalization of people of color, and sinfully selective in the ways we share the love and acceptance offered to everyone through God’s saving work. No gospel is complete if leaves out any of the people Christ came to redeem.
I will listen not only to the multiple ways racism impacts its victims, but also how it debases and perverts the lives of those who actively support it or passively allow it to continue. The stories of racism in this country are violent and shocking and difficult to hear, and that’s precisely why they are necessary. We are broken and diminished when we look the other way, and in any case, it has never been the calling of the church to avoid issues of justice and peace and love.
I will choose to defer in public gatherings to speakers who are persons of color, who understand and have experienced racism first-hand. My role is to support those who are abused directly by words and institutions and systems that have kept them from full participation in this nation’s protections and opportunities.
My heart is broken these days, but I believe in a God who mends hearts, challenges minds, and strengthens the resolve of faithful disciples. I’m counting on that God today. Join me.
Rev. John D’Elia
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May 29, 2020
Something for Absolutely Everyone: Pentecost 2020
A Message by John A. D’Elia
President and Professor of Christian History and Culture
The New Theological Seminary of the West
This week we celebrate Pentecost.
I know it’s hard to imagine celebrating anything right now, but this is such an important day in the life of the church-it’s the beginning of the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ beyond Jerusalem, and over the centuries across the entire world. Pentecost is the day that is meant to unify all of us in Jesus Christ. During this season of health concerns and viruses and protective distancing-of anger and unrest and the ugly face of racism-in the middle of all that, Pentecost gives us a chance to reflect on what God has done to draw all the people of the world together.
That’s the meaning of Pentecost-the gift of the Holy Spirit joins all of us into God’s family, even as it preserves what makes us unique and different and precious.
Like I said, I know it’s hard to imagine celebrating anything right now-we’re in the middle of a pandemic, we have a contentious presidential election coming, and now we’re facing yet another death of an African-American man, Mr. George Floyd, killed as we watched on our screens. I grieve with other fathers of sons who fear for their kids’ lives in a way that I never had to. We pause to pray for calm in the streets, for real justice to be done, and for a season of reflection and action in our country on our real and persistent plague-the insidious plague of systemic racial hatred and abuse.
But for today, just for a moment, we pause to celebrate Pentecost-the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. We do this not to escape from the world, but to be reminded of what God has done to redeem and transform it, and even in these challenging times, what God has done to offer us another way.
As you might imagine if you know me, my version of the Pentecost story begins with a history lesson. It begins with the story of Hellenization, the period when Greek language and culture had its greatest influence on the western world.
When Alexander the Great conquered his part of the world in the 4th century BC, he imposed the Greek language on everyone in his empire. For the history geeks among us that’s what we mean by Hellenization: Alexander required a common language-it’s even called “common Greek” or “Koine Greek”-it’s the language of the New Testament. And his empire spread from Greece to India, and across the Near East to North Africa.
There has never been a more complete adoption of a culture in the history of the world-not before and not since. Even when the Romans conquered the Greeks 300 years later, they kept the Greek language and culture. The influence of Greek culture lasted until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Now alongside that we need to know a little about Jewish Diaspora-the story of the migration of Jewish people to other parts of the world.
Jews had been moving around the western world since the 7th century BC. That includes the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. They left for a whole range of reasons: economic opportunity, to escape wars, or sometimes they simply stayed and made homes where they had been in exile. Tens of thousands of Jews settled in Egypt, but they spread in every other direction, too. In the first century 90% of the world’s Jews lived outside of Judea.
One result of this spreading out was that just about every Jew in the diaspora could understand three languages. Thanks to Alexander they knew Greek for public and commercial life; they used Hebrew in the synagogue; and then there was the language they spoke in their region of the world-the language they spoke before Alexander came to town. Even Jesus would have been able to speak Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, which was his local language.
From Greece to India, to the Near East and into North Africa, each region had its own home language, the one they spoke before Alexander’s armies gave them Greek. It was the language of their families, their ancestors-it was their heart language-the one that was most tied to their history and family and identity.
This is the world Jesus came into-the world his disciples would have to navigate to begin and spread the gospel and grow the church.
That gets us ready to hear the Pentecost story in a new way.
2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
There are three main parts to this story.
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.”
On previous Pentecost Sundays we could pass this by, but today it’s so important. “They were all together in one place.” We’ve probably taken that one for granted over the years, but now that we can’t gather in our churches for a while, now that we can’t be all together in one place, this part of the story pops out at us. Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, and a week or two after Jesus disappeared into the clouds, the earliest Christians were gathering and sharing meals and wondering what was going to happen. “When the day of Pentecost came, there were all together in one place.”
That brings us to the second part of the story-the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Whatever they were all doing together is interrupted by a violent windstorm inside their house. Little flames rested on all of them, and as if that wasn’t strange enough, they started to speak in other languages.
It’s like that moment on a roller coaster when you’ve been going uphill slowly, listening to the clicking of the chains that take you to the highest point, and then whoosh! Everything picks up speed and you start tearing through turns and being thrown around. Wind in the house, flames on everyone’s heads, and now they’re all of a sudden speaking languages they never learned in school.
They spilled out into the public square in Jerusalem, and then we see the reactions of the people there. That’s how we get to part three of our story.
There were these Jewish visitors to Jerusalem, part of that diaspora of Jewish believers throughout the Greek-speaking world-they were in town to see family or to offer prayers at the Temple, and they start to hear something strange. A crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Luke goes into some detail here about the people of God from across the western world who could hear the gospel not in Greek, not even in Hebrew, but in their heart language-the language of their history and family and identity.
“Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
All of these years later we get to pause and ask the same question they did on that first crazy Pentecost: What does this all mean?
I think this story of the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the church is making both a theological statement and a political statement. Here’s why:
Alexander conquered the world and imposed a standard language on every person as a way of controlling his Empire-of extending his rule over the world of his day.
Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that every person could hear the gospel in their own language. It was God’s way of blessing his creation-of extending his loving reign over all people and places and times.
Alexander’s conquest and imposition of Greek tells us a lot about Alexander.
The sacrifice of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit teaches us a lot about God.
And so what do we learn from the story of that first Pentecost?
First, it is in the DNA of the church to learn new ways to communicate the gospel.
From the very first day, God empowered people to find the heart language of their neighbors, so they could share the gospel in meaningful ways.
Second, as long as the core message of the gospel is intact, there are as many ways to communicate it as there are people or languages or cultures. The call on us is to learn how to share the gospel message with the world around us. There are all kinds of cultures and subcultures out there. They’re represented by language and music and literature and film. Pentecost reminds that it’s our job to go to them, not the other way around.
Listen to author Dave Gibbons describe the call on the church in his book, The Monkey and the Fish:
“Each generation must create a new language that connects with the soul and life of their community in their era…So while the message may stay the same, the forms do change. Jesus himself modeled this; the Word, which had always been, became flesh.”
Jesus became human, and showed us that there isn’t any length he wouldn’t go to share his saving message and welcome creation into his arms.
And finally, we learn that the saving message of the gospel is meant to unify us-to bring us together no matter what divides us. That message is always important, but especially during a time of isolation and distancing.
And what about today?
How much more do we need the healing, unifying work of the Holy Spirit as we bear witness to yet another violent death of one of our brothers of color?
How much more do we need learn the heart languages of our neighbors as we see the violent release of pent-up anger and frustration at the cheapness of black bodies in this nation?
We need Pentecost, today more than ever.
We need the Holy Spirit at this moment in critical moment in our history.
We need the Spirit to teach us the heart languages of our brothers and sisters who might not trust the gospel of Jesus Christ in the language of conquest and domination and power.
It’s a good thing that God has already come through.
God started this work through the ministry of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Now it’s our turn.
Alexander conquered the world and imposed a standard language on every person.
Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that every person could hear the gospel in their own language.
Now God calls us to take that message, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to a world that needs to hear those words and see our love more than anything else.
Pentecost isn’t about conquering the world for Christ.
Pentecost is about going out into the world that Christ has already redeemed, and introducing it to the God who made them and died for them and loves them always.
That’s what Pentecost meant on that very first day.
That’s what Pentecost means for us.
May God bless you and keep you.
May God wrap holy arms around you and heal you.
May God bring health and reconciliation to this troubled world.
May God fill you with the Holy Spirit so you can tell this story wherever you go.
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March 31, 2020
A Word from John D’Elia,
President and Professor of Christian History and Culture
New Theological Seminary of the West
Dear Friends of NTSW,
Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ, as we begin another month in captivity.
OK, so maybe that’s overstating things, but it feels like a form of prison, especially for the extroverts out there (and right here). It’s a good thing we’re all doing—staying at home, keeping our distance, doing our best to keep each other healthy—it’s a good thing, but it’s not easy.
As the novelty wears off and we’re faced with at least another month of the status quo, it’s natural for us to have questions. No need to dilute this part—here’s our real question:
Where the heck is God in all of this?
Right? I find myself praying for those close to me, for the church and seminary I serve, for friends and strangers and the whole world. At some moment in all of those prayers I say out loud to God: “Where are you? What are you doing? Why aren’t you stopping this?”
It turns out I’m in good company. In the Bible we find most of our worship language in the Psalms. It’s in this book right in the middle of our Bibles where we find “make a joyful noise” and “clap your hands all you people” and “this is the day that the LORD has made.”
But it’s also the place where we learn something about what it means to lament.
We don’t talk about lamenting nearly enough, except maybe when we’re complaining about someone else’s tendency to complain (read that again). Lamenting has become synonymous with our daily rhythm of whining about how things didn’t go our way, but in our faith tradition it means so much more than that.
N.T. Wright is one of the best Christian thinkers out there. If you haven’t read anything by him, look him up. He publishes academic books as N.T. Wright, and more accessible things as Tom Wright.
In a recent edition of Time magazine, he offers this thought:
“Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer.”
All of us are asking “why?” and not getting much in the way of answers. I want to encourage you today that it’s OK that we don’t have all the answers—if you knew exactly why people were dying, would it make you feel any better? No—our questions are deeper than that.
Where is God?
How will God sustain us in our fear and illness?
Can we trust God to redeem this time of suffering?
Those questions put us in the long tradition of people who love and trust the God of the Bible, even when we can explain why things happen—even when we don’t have all the answers. Don’t believe me? Read Psalms 13, 22, 88 and 89.
Just as a side note, did you know that there are more Psalms of Lament in the Bible than any other kind? That means that more often than not, when God’s people sat down to write their worship language, what came out was a lament.
I don’t know about you, but I find that comforting today. How about you?
My advice today, even though it may sound strange, is to allow yourself some room to lament. Allow yourself the “why?” questions, even without expecting some tidy answer right away.
When we do that—when we lament the way people of faith have done for thousands of years—when we cry out and ask our questions to the God who made us, who loves us, who died for us, and who promises us a future, we live into our faith as disciples of Jesus.
I know this is hard—if lamenting were easy, they would have called it something different. None of this is easy, and none of this is meant to gloss over the pain we’re seeing and the fear we feel. But…it’s a good reminder that we love and serve a God who is sovereign and whose grace can be trusted from generation to generation.
God isn’t afraid of our questions, so go ahead and let them fly. It’s not a burden or an annoyance to God. It’s a declaration of trust.
Blessings to you as you all continue to shelter in your homes. Know that you’re in our prayers.
(A word about Giving: Our financial commitment to the seminary doesn’t stop during times of crisis. We are still paying our staff and our bills, and we have multiple ways for you to keep up your regular gifts of support. You can use the Donate option on the seminary website, or mail your gifts to the seminary office at 626 Foothill Blvd., La Canada CA 91011. Thank you for your faithful support!)